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"MEN OF HARLECH"
WHEN Edward I. had completed his so-called conquest of Wales, he safeguarded the land he had won by building seven strong castles in seven danger-spots. Those at Carnarvon and Conway we have already visited, but most interesting of all is Harlech Castle, linked as it is with the story of the far-off past as well as with the more modern history of Wales.
Built on a crag of rock that juts from a terrace two hundred feet above the plain, stand the great stone towers, looking towards the majestic range of Snowdon to the north, and guarding the wide stretch of country below; while to the west they gaze over the Irish Sea. Legend tells us that the castle stands upon the site of a far more ancient building, Branwen's Tower, which stood there a thousand years before English Edward was heard of.
Bran the Blessed was King of Britain in those days, and with him in his fortress at Harlech lived his sister, Branwen, the fairest maiden in all the land.
Now, one day, says the legend, Bran was at Harlech with his brothers and his followers, and sat with them upon the great rock overlooking the sea. And as they sat they saw thirteen ships coming from Ireland and making straight towards them. Then Bran the Blessed raised himself and said: "I see swift ships coming to this land. See that my officers equip themselves right well and go to find out their errand."
So the officers did so, and when the ships drew near the shore, behold, they saw that they were very richly furnished, with ropes of silk and flags of satin. And in the foremost stood one who lifted a shield high above the bulwarks, and the point of the shield was held upward in token of peace.
Then the strangers landed, and when they had saluted the King, Bran from his rock said unto them: "Heaven prosper you, my friends. To whom do these ships belong, and who amongst you is your chief?"
And they said: "Behold, the King of Ireland, Matholwch, is here as suitor unto thee, and he will not land unless thou grant him his desire."
"And what is his desire?" asked the King.
And they said: " He would make alliance with thee, lord, by taking in marriage Branwen, thy fair sister; that, if it seem good to thee, the Island of the Mighty might be joined to the Island of the Blessed, and so both become more powerful."
"Let him land," said King Bran, "and we will take counsel together upon this matter."
So the two Kings met in friendly wise, and it was arranged that Matholwch should marry Bran-wen, the fairest damsel in the land, and that the wedding should take place at Aberffraw, in Anglesey.
There a great feast was held, all in tents, "for no house could contain Bran the Blessed." But when the banquet was at its height, came in the bride's half-brother, Evnyssian, and, out of spite, because he had not been consulted in the matter, he went to the stables where the horses of the Irish King had been housed, and "cut off their lips to the teeth and their ears close to their heads, and their tails close to their backs, and their eyelids to the bone."
In his wrath, when he discovered this, the Irish King would have broken off the alliance and declared war there and then, but Bran managed to appease his anger by giving him "a silver rod as tall as himself and a plate of gold as wide as his face;" and so he sailed away to the Isle of Saints with his fair bride.
But he never forgot the insult that had been offered him, for his people, jealous of the strange Queen, were constantly reminding him of it; and after her little son, Gwern b, was born, the King deposed her from her place at his side, and ordered her to be cook in his palace.
Sad indeed was Branwen, for she was lonely in the land; but she reared a starling in the cover of her kneading-trough, and when she had written down the story of her wrongs, she tied the letter under the bird's wing, and set it free. The bird, it is said, flew straight to Carnarvon, the abode at that time of King Bran, perched upon his shoulder, and flapped his wings till the letter was seen and taken from him.
Full of anger at the treatment his sister had received, King Bran called together his fighting-men and embarked for Ireland. But Matholwch had no will for warfare, and, having held converse with him, offered to make up for the wrongs offered to his wife by giving up his crown at once to his young son Gwern. To this Bran agreed, and forthwith the Irish King ordered a great banquet to be prepared, that the contract might be sealed.
Now, the boy Gwern was present at this banquet, and showed himself so lovable and so fair that all admired him. But his wicked uncle, Evnyssian, who had already wrought so much evil, waited till he came near, and then of a sudden seized him by neck and ankles, and threw him into the great fire that blazed upon the hearth. In vain did Branwen try to fling herself into the flames that she might save her son. The deed was done before she could grasp him, and his fair body had become a heap of ashes.
Because of this foul deed did bitter warfare break out between the two countries, and so hard went the fighting against the British that at length only seven knights were left alive on the side of Bran, and he himself was sorely wounded in the head, so that he was about to die. Then Bran the Blessed commanded this poor remnant of his followers to strike off his head and bear it to his native land, and he bade them keep it at Harlech for seven years, and then to set it upon the White Mount in the city of Lud; which place is now called Tower Hill in London town.
So the seven knights returned to Harlech with the head of their King, and with them they brought his sister, the unhappy Branwen. And on their way they rested in Anglesey, where Branwen, looking first towards Ireland and then towards Britain, cried with tears: "Woe is me that I was ever born, for two islands have been destroyed because of me!"
Then died poor Branwen of a broken heart, and they buried her in Anglesey, at a spot known henceforth as Ynys Branwen, "where a square grave was made for her on the banks of the Alaw, and there was she laid."1
Early in the last century a four-sided hole was discovered by a farmer in this place, covered over with coarse flagstones. Within was an urn, placed with its mouth downwards, and full of ashes and fragments of bone. The urn was certainly one of that period known as the Bronze Age, and belonged to the "days before history," so we may not un-safely conclude that the ashes it contained were really those of the unhappy Branwen, sister of Bran the Blessed.
And so we come back to Harlech Castle, still with its Branwen Tower, built by Edward I. as a bulwark against the "rebel Welsh."
In later days Owen Glendower besieged and obtained possession of the castle, and was in his turn besieged there by Prince Henry. There it was that his son-in-law, Mortimer, died, and there the wife and children of the latter took, for the last time, refuge when the place was once again captured by the English.
BRAN THE BLESSED AT HARLECH CASTLE WATCHING MATHOLWCH'S FLEET ARRIVE FROM IRELAND
The Wars of the Roses caused stirring times at Harlech. The castle was held against Edward IV. by David ap Sinion, who had offered to receive there under his protection Margaret, the unfortunate widow of Henry VI., and her son, young Edward, after she had lost the Battle of Northampton.
Against this "rebel" marched Lord Herbert, who called upon David to surrender. But David had done good work for the Lancastrian cause abroad, and he now replied that "he had held a castle so long in France that all the old women in Wales had talked about it; and now he was ğing to hold Harlech so long that he would set the tongues of all the old women in France wagging."
Great was the slaughter in that siege, during which, it is said, the "March of the Men of HarIech" was written to stir the neighbouring vassal chieftains to revolt against the usurping Edward.
"Fierce the beacon light is flaming,
With its tongues of fire proclaiming
'Chieftains, sundered to your shaming,
Strongly now unite!'
At the cry all Arfon rallies,
War-cries rend her hills and valleys,
Troop on troop, with headlong sallies,
Hurtle to the fight.
''Chiefs lie dead and wounded,
Yet where first 'twas grounded,
Freedom's flag still holds the crag,
Her trumpet still is sounded;
O, there we'll keep her banner flying
While the pale lips of the dying
Echo to our shout defying,
'Harlech for the right!' "
Even in the English words the chant is inspiring in the extreme; the Welsh words, joined to the warlike tune, would stir the veriest coward to play his part like a hero.
Sad to say, the brave David was forced at length to surrender, on condition that his life was granted.
the honour of Lord
Herbert be it told that when Edward wished to put David to death he
sought him out, and demanded of him one of two things: either he must
send David back to his castle and despatch another officer to besiege
it, or he must take the life of Herbert himself in place of that of
the prisoner. Finally, the King forgave David, and Harlech, the last
to hold out for the Lancastrian cause, submitted.
1 From the "Mabinogion," according to the version in Rev. S. Baring-Gould's "Book of North Wales."